Web-based graduate degrees are replacing the traditional tools of knowledge with an Internet connection and a mouse, making it possible for engineers to avoid the classroom altogether.

East Carolina University is nestled in the small college town of Greenville, N.C. Its nearly 20,000 students step out of residence halls like Fletcher and Cotton every morning and walk across the wooded campus to sit through lectures at the Bate and Rawl Buildings. And when they're not ordering out for pizza or choking down bar food, they'll stop and eat lunch at the Wright Place in Wright Plaza. Damon Becnel is a graduate student at ECU with a concentration in digital communications, but he's never had the pleasure of spending a night in one of those dorms or sampling the college's cuisine. In fact, he lives almost 500 mi away and has never stepped foot on campus.

Becnel, an optical systems engineer for Nortel Networks, Atlanta, is one of the estimated one million current graduate students who will earn a master's degree without ever seeing the inside of a classroom, thanks to the growth of Web-based graduate degree programs. Armed with a high-speed Internet connection and the self-discipline to spend hours in front of a computer without ever making face-to-face contact with a professor, engineers can acquire the professional development they're after and never have to take a night class or miss a day of work.

The digital lesson plan.

Distance education isn't a new concept for working professionals — but the Web-based method of delivery is. Engineers in the workplace have been earning master's degrees via videotaped lectures for years. Real-time audio- and videoconferencing were the next step, giving distance students the opportunity to virtually participate. And now with the exponential growth of the Internet and its informational and communicative capabilities, students can “attend” those same courses from their home computer.


And just as the content of an on-campus class can vary greatly based on the professor teaching it, the format of Web-based courses can change dramatically from one class to the next. On the low-tech end of the scale, an instructor may use the Web to post reading assignments on the class's home page and require a once-a-week discussion session in a university chat room. At the other end of the spectrum, a professor may sync video of his lectures with PowerPoint presentations and make them available on the class's Web page. In either case, students are generally responsible for written homework assignments that can be downloaded, printed out, and then faxed to the professor or teaching assistant when completed.

Becnel's experience with Internet Research Methods during the Spring 2002 session at ECU would qualify as one of the more low-tech versions. “The way our system worked was the instructor posted the lesson somewhere late in the week — between Wednesday and Friday,” he says. “He'd post it, and the first week was basically for just information gathering. Then we'd have a chat session in which we discussed what we learned or what he expected out of us or what we were supposed to know. Then the next week would be for questions and answers. He'd post questions, and each person had to respond individually.”

Although initially skeptical of the program, Becnel says it has proved to be a flexible, more convenient method of earning a degree. As is the case for most engineers, time is a valuable commodity for him, and the ability to access the coursework whenever and wherever is important to him. His job requires him to travel almost 30% of the time, but he has found that Web-based courses make it easier to keep up while he's on the road. “Prior to joining this [degree program], I was in a regular brick-and-mortar night school, and I missed quite a few classes,” he says. “This is a lot more convenient.”

Tom Herald, a senior systems engineer for Lockheed Martin in Washington, D.C., waited 16 yr to go back to school and get his Ph.D. in systems engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology for several reasons, not the least of which was his commitment to family. But once his children had grown up, the online degree program at SIT became more attractive. “Now that [my daughters] are older, I can do it without hurting the family,” he says. “They even tell me it sets a good example: ‘If Dad's doing homework, I guess I better do mine.’”

Herald's experience at SIT has been similar to Becnel's, as the majority of his courses have consisted of little more than downloading reading assignments from the class's Web site and meeting online for weekly or bi-weekly chat sessions. Although it sounds like a light workload, he says it has been much more difficult than he expected — but in a good way. “It's more difficult for the reason that you have to teach yourself,” he says. “I think with a Web course you actually learn. Otherwise you fail. If you really get involved in the course, you're going to learn more and be able to retain and use more from that class.”

Being able to motivate yourself and having the self-discipline to do the work even though you don't have to show up for a class are the most important criteria for what makes up a good Web student, according to Dr. Barry Willis, associate dean of outreach for the University of Idaho's college of engineering. “What we've found — and there's tons of information out on this — is the bridge that sort of makes or breaks a successful distance learning course or distance learning student is their level of motivation,” he says. “I think that's why it has worked out so well for engineers, because they are almost by definition very technical people, and they're not dissuaded by having to tinker with things. And they typically have the money to pay what it takes to [take Web-based classes].”

Cost can be an issue, as most online courses are two to almost three times as expensive as an on-campus class. However, several companies like Nortel and Lockheed are willing to invest that money in the development of their employees, as was the case for Becnel and Herald.

Possibly the most intangible drawback is the lack of face-to-face contact with professors. In almost all Web-based courses, instructors are available by phone or e-mail, and they're usually present during scheduled chat sessions to answer questions and provide feedback. However, virtual office hours are no substitute for live contact. And Willis will even go so far as to say on-campus classes are preferable to distance courses — videotape- or Web-based — for that reason alone. “I'll be the first to tell you that if push comes to shove, if you could work it out, if you can physically relocate, if you can afford to take leave of your job, there is no substitute for a good face-to-face class,” he says.

The fact that many of the conditions he listed are the very reasons people take distance classes at all, though, proves that the “disconnect” between student and instructor isn't something that can be avoided. Instead it's something to overcome. Becnel says he's getting as much out of the class as he would in the traditional classroom format, but he misses the group setting. “I'm a conversationalist,” he laughs. “I'll sit there and talk to you for 2 hr if you talk back.”

Bandwidth bandits.

Although they may be more convenient than videotaped distance education courses, Web-based courses and degrees require more hardware and equipment to make them work. The former made a VCR a must, but students who take the latter need a host of e-gadgetry, including a computer with a CD- or DVD-ROM drive and sometimes a Web camera and microphone for videoconferencing. However, as professors pack more applications into their courses, high-speed Internet connections have become a must, and available bandwidth has become a concern.

When it comes to the format of a Web-based degree program, keeping things simple is the way to go, according to Willis. In the rush to invest time and money into what some believe to be just another Internet fad, Willis says too many schools have loaded up their Web-based courses with too many bandwidth-greedy functions, making it difficult for students using their home PCs with slower connection speeds to participate and access all of the materials. Streaming video is easy to view on a university or company network that employs a T1 or T3 high-speed connection, but it can be virtually impossible for students to view those streams with an unreliable 56K modem.

“All of our students — and this is a national trend — are typically viewing these courses at home, not at work,” Willis says. “There is more bandwidth available [than when Web-based courses first became available], but just as bandwidth has increased, so have the demands on that bandwidth and the sophistication of the applications. It's an improving situation that will continue to improve, but I suspect we're still 3 yr to 5 yr away from having adequate bandwidth to do what it is we do now.”

As an alternative to courses and degrees delivered strictly via the Web, Willis sees a future for hybrid programs that would include videotaped lectures in DVD format and imbedded links to both the class chat room or message boards and low-bandwidth Web sites for additional materials. The process hasn't been perfected as yet, but UI is considering it. “If you slip that disc into your laptop when you're in Schenectady, N.Y., you can watch all this video stuff right on your laptop, and you're not having to access someone's server on the other side of the country to get that streaming video, which just eats up a ton of bandwidth,” he says.

Aside from making sure they have the bandwidth necessary to take these classes, Willis suggests that prospective Web students do their homework before selecting a school. Not all courses are recognized by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, so it's a good idea to ask questions. He also recommends asking admissions departments for permission to sample a course and see how it works to make sure it's something you can handle.

Cautiously optimistic.

Online graduate courses are still in their infancy, and only a handful of schools offer full degree programs. Kansas State University's electrical engineering distance education department will make its first Web course, Noise Theory, available this fall. Dr. David Soldan, the head of the electrical and computer engineering department, says the department is taking its time to make sure it examines the possible shortcomings so it can offer a program that serves the students' needs as well as an on-campus class does. “We're not interested in throwing something together,” he says. “We feel like we need to learn more about [Web-based classes]. But we have one or two people in other departments at the college who are doing it, so we think it has some potential.”

Even colleges that offer complete graduate programs are taking a conservative approach. The University of Deleware has offered a Web-based master's degree for electrical engineers since September 2001, but only one student has enrolled in the program so far. According to Kathy Werrell, assistant dean of engineering, that's just fine. “We're not really worrying about making this a monstrous program in terms of size,” she says. “We see it as a service to the working student…but we're not trying to set goals to have 100 students in this program by such-and-such a date.”

As colleges proceed cautiously with their online degree programs, Damon Becnel is looking forward to getting his diploma. With plans to graduate from ECU next spring, he has only two semesters left in a program he didn't initially have a lot of faith in. “At one time, I was totally against it,” he says. “I really didn't see any value in it. I guess I thought it would be a lot less involved than it is. But knowledge-wise and information wise, I think it's a lot more than I expected.”